Benetton Rugby and Zebre arrive in the newly revamped Guinness Pro 14 format with questions a plenty on their competitiveness. For Zebre, a conscious decision to become a development team. For Benetton Treviso, the aim is to become more competitive and climb up the conference standings. Hawkeye Sidekick casts an eye on the off-season goings on in Italy and the short term future will be a mixed bag for club and national team.
A team in transition would be best to describe Benetton Rugby. Luke McLean, Filo Paulo, David Odiete who were leading players for the club in recent years have left for new chapters in their rugby careers. McLean and Paulo have moved to London Irish. Odiete has moved to Rovigo. They lead the departures listing with several fringe squad players moving to Padova, Rovigo, Mogliano and Medicei Firenze.
The team though have being reinforced with some potentially astute signings. Marty Banks at fly-half comes from the Highlanders. Nasi Manu will provide abrasive ball carrying from the eight position and joins the club from Edinburgh Rugby. Whetu Douglas from the Crusaders should improve the front row depth chart. Ime Herbst joins from the Southern Kings. The 6’6 lock will provide assured set piece execution and physicality in the pack exchanges along with Federico Ruzza who joins from Zebre. Several good signings from the club; intent to compete in the league is clear.
The big issue is in terms of squad depth and the rigors of the Pro 14 fixture schedule. The hope is that the new arrivals stay injury free to provide leadership, tempo throughout to complement with what is already present in the likes of Zanni, Allan, Hayward and McKinley. The November and RBS 6 Nations schedule will definitely deplete the Treviso squad and one wonders if they will win fixtures during these spells.
McKinley at ten will be a pivotal figure for the Italian club. His road to this point is an amazing story of determination and refusal not to give up on your dreams. A serious eye injury in 2010 left his career in the balance but he gradually returned to playing and at a level which has propelled him to the professional club ranks. An astute tactician and game manager, McKinley will look to continue his prominent form of last season to propel the side to further improvement.
The Italian RFU have plumped for Benetton Rugby and the level of investment and caliber of player signed shows intent and increased competitiveness which was badly required. Treviso should provide more resistance to opposition this season with the likes of Banks and Herbst in the ranks. Expect a couple of wins early doors but the schedule and international fixtures will deplete the squad. If Benetton Rugby can be in the mix for the top three spots, then it will be seen as a progressive season. If not, the national team will suffer.
The appointment of Michael Bradley as head coach is a positive sign for anyone involved in Italian Rugby. Conor O’Shea has his hands all over this appointment and it starts the plan to create the structures to allow the national side to progress long term. Bradley’s experience is vast; coaching Connacht / Edinburgh and his stint with Georgia National team. The Cork native will have good contacts in the league and expect a couple of additional experienced signings before the end of the season to bolster the squad.
Zebre have had a topsy turvy off-season. There were rumors that the club would fold but the decision of the Italian Rugby Federation to take over is a positive move for Italian Rugby. The Parma franchise will be used essentially as a developmental ground for players to progress and if good enough get to the national team.
The player acquisition approach from the club this off-season is evidence of this. All Italian indigenous players who will look to impress. Tenga, Giammarioli, Minozzi, Luus, Panico, Azzolini, Krumov and Raffaele coming from the likes of Flamme Oro, Viadana and Calvisano. Only Dave Sisi arrives to the club from outside Italy joining from Bath Rugby.
The challenge for Zebre and Michael Bradley is to identify consistent indigenous performers in the side who can evaluate to the national team. Looking at the current squad, plenty will be expected from the overseas personnel to set the example and tone. Meyer, Koegelenberg, Baker and Italian Vendetti will be the leading players in the side but there are going to be a couple of heavy losses for Bradley and team in order to gain the cohesion, organization and game nous required to become a competitive team.
Zebre are a team who will look to build this season, build the skill set of the indigenous squad members and hope that they excel in the environment. The Italian Rugby Federation need to be patient and support O’Shea and his plans to create the grassroots and structures for the game to flourish in the country.
Italy is a fantastic venue for rugby. Rome is idyllic and is an amazing backdrop for any international games. This trait needs to also add that the national side and professional club scene are competitive and hard to beat. Yes, this will take time but I am convinced that O’Shea with the assistance of Michael Bradley can identify players to climb to the international level.
It is a daunting task for Zebre this season. The squad’s preparation has being stifled by the the boardroom rumors. Michael Bradley will have his work cut out to improve Zebre sufficiently to contend for a top three conference spot. The goal this season is for different facets of play to improve as the season progresses. There will be heavy losses but the goal has to be for the indigenous players in the squad to gain experience and improve their fitness, conditioning and skill set. Hope Bradley is given the time to create the necessary club structures to allow the club and the national team to flourish. Top three is beyond them this term and probably shirting around the bottom of the conference.